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The Space Between Meanings
Two of Canada`s top literary critics go out to brunch and partake of many discourses STAN FOGEL, a professor of English at St. Jerome`s College in Waterloo, Ontario, and Linda Hutcheon, a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, are both in the forefront of contemporary literary study in Canada. Stan Fogel is the author of A Tale of Two Countries (ECW, 1984) and The Postmodern University (ECW, 1988), and co-author (with Gordon Slethaug) of Understanding John Barth (University of South Carolina Press, (1990); Linda Hutcheon`s publications include Narcissistic Narrative (Wilfrid Laurier, 1980), The Politics of Postmodernism (Routledge, 1988), The Canadian Postmodern (Oxford, 1988), and Splitting Images: Canadian Ironies (Oxford, 1990). They met in Toronto recently to compare notes on the state of the literary and other cultures. Stan Fogel: In March, 1991, Harper`s magazine published a controversial conversation about cultural change between Camille Paglia and Neil Postman. Harper`s sent them out to dinner at an expensive restaurant, and then punctuated their comments with descriptions of what they had had for each course; readers were apparently expected to drool over their debate. We are not going to announce courses because we only had one, but I do want it known that in August, 1991, Books in Canada sent us out for brunch at Toronto`s The Bagel, a relaxed, homey eatery where the portions are huge and the prices are modest. The ironies are apparent because we had ...I`ll tell you what we had. We each had a bagel with lox, `Vest tout;` and some coffee. So, the elaborate contracted courses we`re not having we cannot relate. My interest in the linkage is that in the Harper`s discussion there were two people, one of whom, Paglia, is a fiery anti-literary, antitraditional writer, ironically enough. She also seems to have become a personality who proclaims the death of the book and the death of dull, stultifying academe and the death of narrow, linear, 19th-century-style culture. Her thrust was that media can be so much more diverse, disruptive, etc., that the book culture is superfluous. A guy with a name like Postman should uphold the book`s side and he did - he delivered, I thought, a dull "books-are-good-for-us" argument, a very plodding rejoinder that emphasized that tradition and values and the whole cultural heritage we have are important and that books are the central medium to keep it alive. Linda Hutcheon: The Harper`s debate is of particular and amusing interest to me because someone at the CBC called [Pause sound of a full tray of dishes dropping on the foor] when that hit the stands and said, "Look, we want to reconstruct this debate in Canada and we want to get you on the show to talk about this." And I said: "Could I just ask you what side I`m supposed to take?" There was a pause at the other end of the line and she said: "Oh, well we`ve been told that you would take the post modern or the TV -culture side." I paused and said: "Well, may I point out the obvious irony of your calling a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, who makes a living teaching books and writing books, and asking her to defend television culture?" She replied, "Oh, well yes ...perhaps that`s true. Would you rather be on the other side?" I was thinking of those boxes that they always have on the screen and I thought, well, no, because I wouldn`t like to lament television culture, it`s very much part of our reality. We can`t ignore it, it`s a rich part of reality, in fact, a cultural reality. So I think I would be in a very postmodern position somewhere in the middle, at which point we both realized that there was no box in the mid dle on "The Journal," and that was the end of that. I think they contacted you as well, and you were also stranded in the middle. Fogel: Well, they were determined - and I was happy with the contradiction -to put me in the "this is not the ponderous book" box. Although, again, there`s the irony that my major mode of conveying whatever it is that I convey is through books that are usually, or they have been so far anyway, turgid academic books. This is a good point at which to introduce your work and especially your newest book, Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Irony (Oxford), in which the ironic position is clearly very important to you. In many ways, the works you deal with, the books you have written on postmodernism, on parody, on irony, spell an end to grand literature, to the universal statement if you like. In Splitting Images, you write that "as bpNichol taught us in book 3 of The Martyrology there is no we encompasses." Your project is perhaps to fragment or make diffuse the impact of literature. You begin The Canadian Postmodern by speaking of yourself as the child of immigrant parents, as a woman, as an academic. So in a sense you narrow the space or the place from which you speak. Doesn`t that particularizing feed into the kind of decline of the universal that had Postman pissing and moaning about the death of cultural values? Hutcheon: I suppose it does. But I don`t see it as the death of Culture, but the beginning of cultures in the plural. Get rid of the capital C in Culture and I think we would all be a lot happier. The introduction to The Canadian Postmodern was something I felt I had to write because it was something I probably- should put before everything I write; it`s the personal. history that we all have that determines what we do and why we do it. It comes very much from being female, from being Italian, from being the things that English professors never were, at least when I was a student; and on my way- through graduate school I was starting to question why they- seemed to have the truth that I could never quite approximate. My realization was that this Truth, this capital T truth, was in fact a very positional thing. This, of course, didn`t come out of the blue. It came from reading a lot of deconstructionist theory, which was just starting to become available at that time in the `60s and ` `70s. Fogel: Is it true that a lot of academics, especially- to English, are hostile to your project and its diminution of capital T Truth.` Hutcheon: Yes. Fogel: They`re hostile especially because it diminishes the universal status of literature. [Doors slamming arid squeaking- were sitting next to the washroom.] Hutcheon: What the people who had been teaching me called universal in fact turned out to he something that was probably identified in 19th-century England be heterosexual white men. T) me, to call something not universal is not to diminish it. It is merely to position it and say, this is our culture, people write from different positions Within that culture, and what they write can be of value. YOU don`t have to pause at universality, you can recognize the specificity of universal values. Fogel: Now, I`m very sympathetic to that. We have talked before about these kinds of things and my own rejection of the attempt to inflate literature by making it something absolute or universal is as strong as yours, but there clearly is reservation on the part of many in the academy. I think of those recent book: such a Roger Kimball`s Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D`Souza` Illiberal Education. There`s a real fear, it seems to me, on the part of a good manyacademics and people who look at academe from the outside, that this portends the destruction, decline, and tall of Western civilization. Hutcheon: It`s less the destruction of Western civilization than the destruction of the credibility, as they see it, of the academic profession that professes this culture. So it`s a very pelf interested kind of worry. It`s less a v-orry about Western civilization than about our position as authorities. And yet I don`t see it as a threat at all. Our students are not all 19th-century male heterosexuals, nor are they necessarily of European descent. They are people who live in our contemporary culture, and to talk about culture in terms that make sense to them does not strike me as being a threat to Western civilization. It may mean bringing Western civilization into the present. Fogel: For me the threat is not real either, especially because there are institutional safeguards against the decline of culture and the loss of - this is The Bagel, after all - our meal tickets. Hutcheon: I should have said when we talked about Western culture that, of course, seeing the limitations of Western culture and seeing that it`s only one culture among many have been important spin-offs. Fogel: So despite any antagonistic stance you may take toward traditional critical methods, in a sense you keep them alive by recycling and reworking them; you scrutinize them. Hutcheon: And that`s why I am particularly interested in moves like parody, which use works of the past in different ways. This may diminish them, but it also perpetuates them. I think that is why I got interested in postmodernism, because it struck me that postmodernism ...[Sirens going outside] admits that it is part of the culture in which it exists, capitalist in some cases, patriarchal, negative, whatever label you want to use, liberal humanist, and yet doesn`t want to give up its ability to criticize even though it knows it`s part of the tradition criticized. So, it`s a kind of complicit criticism, that funny middle stand. Fogel: Or an ironic stance. All your books, I think, have as their focus an attempt to take the materials of the past and deform then in a sense, but also to reform them. Hutcheon: Definitely, and I am particularly interested in the middle space, the space between meanings. What we are doing when we read anything from the past, when we interpret it, is to make it our own, to reform it anyway. Fogel: In your articulation of this sort of middle ground or ironic ground, you`ve become very influential in the academy [She makes a face at this point]. One could say I suppose, that Northrop Frye was the major figure in Canadian academe for years, in all English-speaking countries, really; but if he defined a kind of high modernism or universal approach to literature, then you have become central in a deliberately marginal way, if you like, to the refashioning of academic discourse in this country. Do you see yourself like that? Hutcheon: I never have. I was going to make some crack about how history repeats itself as farce, but that`s beside the point. I think I agree that Frye in his formalism did define a kind of high modernism for political theories as much as for literature. If there`s any link between Frye and me, I guess I would see congruity in the fact that we were both interested in theory and in Canadian literature. Regarding the latter, for me it was an accident of teaching to some extent. When I went on the job market there were few jobs-the only ones available were in Canadian studies because there were so few people around who had done anything in it. I had done zero in it, but because I was Canadian, it was determined that I could, therefore, learn. I became very interested in it and because I believe in studying the culture in which one lives, I car* ever get away from that. Canadian studies will always be an important part of my work. I think Frye felt somewhat the same thing. I think that rooting in one`s culture is very important. Fogel: I`m still interested in pushing this a little, concerning the image of Northrop Frye and yourself. He became a kind of cultural icon revered far beyond academic circles. He offered a repository of cultural values, the kind that Neil Postman speaks of, `so I think there was a real attempt to make a monument of him. Hutcheon: Which he would have resisted ...it was his own fine sense of irony, which is probably very Canadian. Fogel: fm curious about your sense of your own position. Hutcheon: When you describe Frye as a repository of values, 1 think you are right. Not only did he represent high modernism in terms of his theory, but he also represented a sort of liberal humanism at its pedagogical best. That`s where the general public (,(,t to know a lot more about Frye`s ideas. Everything that I have been working on for the last few years has been against that, in a way. Not against Frye in particular in any way - he was one of me teachers and I think an important influence on me - bur questioning and challenging some of those ;teat values that I ecretl% -it any rate obviously also believe in, because they- are pert of me background. When you try to theorize challenges to that kind of value, it`s hard to see yourself as ever being a repository of any- kind. Fogel: His work is very difficult. I can`t see literary criticism ever reaching an audience beyond the very small academic uric. Even the collection of Fryes essays that was published as The Educated Imagination, which was also broadcast on radio, is difficult to read. Hutcheon: He never talked down to am- audience. Fogel: 1 think he has been recuperated as a kind of father figure. We can go back to your own... Hutcheon: ...To me as a mother figure? Fogel; No, not as a mother figure, but as an "important cultural figure." When Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies came out, are. you told me that you were called by somebody at "Morningside." I wonder if you could tell that story. Hutcheon: It was an audition I suppose. The person asked me if I felt that I could talk about my book to a general listening public, to the "`man on the street;` and I said I thought I could. I talk to undergraduates every day and they seem to understand me. But after talking for 45 minutes about the book it was deemed, I gather, since I didn`t hear from him again, that no, I really couldn`t. I knew Frye had been on the show, and I wondered. . . (sound of a door squeaking- quite annoying) if other academics who go on the show have the same feeling that there is this need to, as I mentioned earlier, talk down to an audience ...I don`t know that we have to talk down to them. I suppose I was a little concerned by that. Fogel: There`s a great deal of resistance to academic discourse in the real world. You have written a number of books, all of them well received in academic circles. You discuss postmodernism, experimental art, feminist confrontations with patriarchal notions of literature. How do you move from academic arenas to more popular contexts? I think you have the ability to talk to anybody who is willing to listen, yet there`s a resistance to you and not to Frye. Hutcheon: I think there is also resistance on my part and it`s partly because I am not sure I can write for what is called the general public. I don`t know this. I think that I write very much within an academic discourse. I write two kinds of book. Some are theoretically oriented, and are very much within the discourse of whatever I am writing about. So if I write about postmodernism, I`m speaking to people who are writing about postmodernism. Other books I try to direct at a broader community, or to an audience of students. I try to write in a way that my students can understand; and that is not writing down, that is just writing in a discourse for a larger group. I think we all belong to different communities of discourse. There`s theory discourse, there`s the discourse of analysing specific texts, that sort of thing. And there is our teaching discourse. We all have different modes of talking and occasionally I try to write other than densely academic prose, which some critics have attacked as being patronizing. I don`t believe that at all. I think it`s talking "other." Fogel: I have heard you lecture a number of times, and I like the way you incorporate slides and other sorts of media to make a presentation more accessible. Can you think of any other things you would like to say generally about your public image? Hutcheon: This is the first time I knew I had one. Fogel: That`s interesting too, isn`t it? In academe you have a strong image and a great deal of power - students come to you, graduate students, Ph.D. students who might want grants or might want jobs later - and in that closed world your signature can have a good deal of currency. Yet in the popular media, it`s not even known... Hutcheon: Again, your description of the power dynamics are something I just don`t think about, and I don`t know if that is supremely Canadian - which I think some people would say. Fogel: Here`s an example: with Books in Canada you have a magazine that is devoted to books, and is read by people who no doubt are receptive to the whole literary milieu, who don`t think, like Paglia, that book culture is dry, sterile, and dead. They - as you and I - probably rely on books for much of their stimulation and for much of their experience of the world. But the academic publishing that goes on in Canada is rarely covered in Books in Canada. [Crash - editor falls out of chair.] Hutcheon: It`s rarely covered anywhere except in university journals. Academics might have a mediating role, say, as reviewers; we do for our students, but for the general public that role doesn`t appear to be ours. I think that is part of why a lot of our stuff... (that door just keeps on banging away) doesn`t get in and I think ...I have a secret theory that they don`t want to let us in. One of the reasons why a lot of our stuff is not reviewed, even though it might be of interest to the general public, is that it is in somebody`s interest to put us in an ivory tower especially as we are trying to get out of it. Fogel: We in our narrowness, though, are partly responsible. Our vocabulary has become more and more rarefied, narrower, more unintelligible. Hutcheon: That worries me very much. That`s why I said I don`t even know if I can write books for the general public. I`m not sure that I haven`t totally internalized that language. Fogel: The irony is really that your vocabulary, your language will, of course, be heard in your classes, and read in your books by people who will, no doubt, go on to be university, high school, and grade school teachers. They will absorb and translate your language and your ideas into terms that their students can understand, students who aren`t specialists, who don`t necessarily want to have Ph.D.s in English and so all of a sudden... is this the route that it takes? Hutcheon: I think so. It is not accidental that the pressure to do more theory in graduate programs, for example, comes from graduate students. It`s exactly that kind of cycle that you described. It is not going to come from above, it`s going to come from below, and it comes out of that cycle. Fogel: None of your books has fully and specifically engaged the question of feminism, though this book, Splitting Images, has a chapter devoted to it. It seems to me that the major reworking, refashioning, refiguring of responses to literature in Canadian universities has been the feminist rewriting, the feminist challenging of traditional credos. It`s a very strong influence in your work, I know. Hutcheon: Feminism certainly was a big influence on my thinking. It marks the first of a series of changes, of rethinkings, of which issues of sexual preference, race, and so on are now becoming the continuation. In Canada the order maybe different than in the United States; where perhaps Afro-Americans with their Black consciousness movement of the `60s and `70s confronted various institutions. In all my books, and particularly at the end of The Politics of Postmodernism, I felt I had to address specifically the issue of feminism in the light of postmodernism. Many of the things I had talked about as so-called postmodern strategies were being used by feminist writers, so what were the links and the differences? Was I yoking the two? I certainly didn`t want to blur their differences. Feminism has an explicit political agenda. Fogel: What disturbs a lot of the academic traditionalists is the whole notion of the political. Their books are tried and true, ditto their professorial methods; they`re not political, oh no. Then, so they say, all of a sudden we have some "upstarts" who are going to "politicize literature," say, and thereby perhaps tarnish it. Hutcheon: Everybody`s work is from some position that by definition makes it political. To encourage that awareness is to threaten the idea of universality and disinterest. I find that awareness liberating. Fogel: I agree, perhaps for different reasons. I am not a woman. I find feminism liberating in its confrontation with pieties and traditions that I found stultifying and dictatorial. Along came some articulate, incisive feminists, you among them, who challenged what have been accepted as truths and which clearly are only truths for a specific percentage of the audience. Hutcheon:Canada, I suppose, was particularly interesting to me because we have such a long tradition of women writers, many of whom have been great ironists. These are people who, before the word feminism was used widely, managed to use irony to subvert major male models. Literary models, moral models, behavioural models, you name it, and that resistance interested me a lot. It`s so strong in Canada...[sounds of stacking dishes]. Women writers weren`t buried the way they have been in other cultures. Fogel: The boycotting of Brett Easton Ellis`s American Psycho made me realize that whereas I wouldn`t be comfortable teaching the novel, a woman might be able to. There is a heightened awareness now that the place of the professor is a highly contest ed arena, and I rather like that. To me, that in itself produces a far more fertile and a far richer academic experience than what some want in the reaffirmation of the great books. Hutcheon: Right. To come back to what we began talking about, that whole idea of the universal and the authentic, I have never been comfortable at all with the position of the neutral professor, the authority, capital A, at the front of the room. Because I have never been comfortable with that, which is why I was not comfortable with a lot of your questions about the perceived image, I am much happier being able to teach in a very self conscious way. I say to my students, "Look, this is where I am coming from. I have to accept that you are all coming from very different positions, so I am not going to try to make you think the way I do, but I am going to raise issues that will try to force you to think them through for yourselves, and I will mark accordingly" I think that among the things we teach are conventions. Modes of thought as opposed to information, and therefore I don`t see myself as an Authority, capital A, on Literature, capital L. Fogel: Certainly, my own teaching has changed drastically. In many ways teaching "bad" books, or those books that haven`t been canonized, is a very salutary thing. So one has to think of the composition of courses. If I have 10 books all written by men, well, perhaps this is going to give messages about culture that aren`t necessarily the ones that I intended. Hutcheon: I find myself in a similar position on the other side. I remember when I was first putting together a course list for a course in contemporary American fiction, my first wish list that I put down consisted of all Black women writers. I thought then, "Wait a minute, Linda, there are white males, there are white females, there are Black men;` and I actually had to change it. One has to think these things through. We have been forced to become much more self-conscious about our motives for what we do, on both sides. I think that is healthy; I think that in a profession where we are supposed to teach people to question, we have to keep questioning ourselves. Fogel: Despite the fact that specific books may not be revered as much as they were, or that books generally have been revalued by our culture, print is a wonderful enough medium. Hutcheon: It will do for me! Fogel: It will do for me, too. Hutcheon: It will also, I hope, do for the readers of Books in Canada.
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